Your Smartphone & the Future of Energy Management

Your Smartphone & the Future of Energy Management

By Martin Smith

By now, everyone has heard of the “smart home.” Just in case you missed out on this buzzword, a home is considered “smart” if it is connected to the internet. This usually means that the appliances within a home are all wirelessly gathering data online via your Wi-Fi. They can then convert this data stream into useful information for you to use (i.e. your oven telling you the best temperature to cook a pizza). There is another interesting perk about smart home connectivity (the list keeps growing) that has just recently come to light. Through the power of smartphone apps, users can now gain information about and control certain smart appliances while they are away from their house. What is even more interesting, is that when these appliances are also connected to smart energy meters via Wi-Fi (there are about 52 million installed in the U.S. residential sector), the exact amount of energy that each one is consuming can be sent right to your phone in real-time. How can this data help the consumer in ways that traditional utility-provided energy consumption information doesn’t? What consumer-based smart energy management platforms are pushing us into a new age of energy awareness?

The “Holy Grail” of Energy Efficiency

In his book titled “Navigating Environmental Attitudes,” Thomas Heberlein, a pioneer in the environmental sociology world, proves how difficult it is to induce energy-saving behaviors. Based off the results from Heberlein’s numerous studies, which other behavioral research seems to confirm, it appears that educating the public and providing information about energy-saving benefits is not a successful tactic for getting people to turn down their AC units and unplug the lights. Research continually shows that conserving energy use has to be convenient (most important) and also provide financial incentives. Also, it has been shown that well-placed prompts—messages or signs that engage a person to behave in a certain way—are successful at fostering sustainable behaviors. Is there a strategy out there that utilizes all three of these proven tactics in nudging homeowners to save energy?

There are smartphone apps that combine prompts and financial incentives in a convenient manner to engage consumers with their energy use. These apps utilize something called energy disaggregation—coined the “holy grail of energy efficiency” by a team of Stanford researchers. Disaggregation essentially means breaking out the energy use in your home right down to a single appliance. In the Stanford paper, cited nearly 200 times, the authors say, “the most important reason why appliance information facilitates greater energy reductions is that it enables automated personalized recommendations.” Companies like the ones discussed below are providing consumers with exactly that.

Your Fridge is Running, Better…….Upgrade it

Chai Energy, based out of Los Angeles, is one company capitalizing on this new Stanford praise-worthy energy management concept. According to their website, the smartphone-based energy management system called Chai Energy Pro is like “having a personal calorie tracker for your energy usage.” Claiming to save the average homeowner up to $300 per year on energy bills, the smart-meter required platform can identify all of the major appliances in a home (HVAC, refrigerator, pool heater, etc.), and then give the occupant smartphone prompts that make them aware of inefficient appliances, which to unplug at certain times, and when to upgrade to the latest super-efficient GE washing machine. Chai Energy’s basic version, which is free, only supplies general home energy usage data, and works like many other smartphone energy apps—it collects daily energy use data from utility providers via Green Button Data.

Much like Chai Energy Pro, the company Bidgely is providing homeowners and tenants with a smart “gateway” device that connects to smart meters and collects energy data on appliances. Two things coming from Bidgely and its recent pilot projects are very interesting. One, is the ability it has to compare your household’s energy usage to other homes in your neighborhood, or possibly other rooms in your apartment building if you’re a multi-unit dweller. This social influence strategy has proven successful before by utility companies looking to tap into the human competitive spirit, in order to drive us to be “better,” or in this case more efficient, than our neighbors. The second interesting and recently proven successful tactic that Bidgely is employing is gamification. Last winter (summer for Australia), Bidgely partnered with United Energy, an Australian utility company, on a demand response trial program for their customers. United Energy wanted to find a cost-effective method to engage their residents during notified peak event times in a convenient manner in order to avoid costly energy spikes. For the trial, United Energy utilized Bidgely’s HomeBeat ActionDR smartphone app, which communicates to customers all information about peak demand events via an engaging platform that uses gamification, real-time feedback, and provides financial incentives and rewards to customers who “win” the peak event (cut back their energy use). The results from this pilot program were so great—United Energy averaged greater than 30% load reduction for peak events—that the Peak Load Management Alliance (PLMA) decided to grant them the “Technology Pioneer” award at the 13th Annual PLMA Awards.

Photo credit: Bidgely

LEED Integration

Verdical Group understands the power and reach USGBC’s LEED rating system has on the green building industry. Because of this, we believe energy disaggregation platforms could be promoted through a specific credit under the Energy and Atmosphere credit category. And this wouldn’t just apply towards LEED for Homes either. The recent California Existing Buildings Energy Efficiency Action Plan promotes the use of platforms like Chai Energy and Bidgely because they see how effective disaggregation tools can be for engaging occupants to conserve energy. If research and pilot programs continue to show that these tools bring benefits to all types of residential buildings, there is no reason why a LEED Pilot Credit should not be introduced to give project teams the chance to prove these benefits in their designs.